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Manuel de Layet [Film Festival 09.12.09] Japan movie review scifi action

Year: 2009
Directors: Kazuaki Kiriya
Writers: Kazuaki Kiriya & Tetsurô Takita
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: The Crystal Ferret
Rating: 4 out of 10

It is here, it is now, it’s at l’Etrange Festival, it’s the latest Kazuaki Kiriya movie.

Let’s weave a tale of succession, honor, valor, courteous love, and chivalry in the good old European terms. Let’s hear an epic tale, one where Robin Hood would avenge Arthur in a journey of high adventures while managing to catch a glimpse of Marian’s ankle while doing so. Let’s get that particular feeling of righteousness and good clearly in mind. Got it? You have that picture in your mind? Yes? Now add NINJAS to it.

The whole idea, associated with Kiriya's previous movie Casshern, left us panting and in dire need of sitting in the dark watching such incredible an tale while our retinas slowly get burned one image at a time, transcended by the sheer grandeur of the whole. The visual expectations are high, a ninja Robin Hood out of Japanese medieval folklore, that’s some script!

So our hero is Goemon, a self proclaimed master thief, and we meet him during a high class robbery in some vault. The usual thief comedy ensues, people barging in on some official purpose and our hero trying to get out without dying and with the wrong map. We then proceed into a rooftop chase complete with wealth redistribution, throwing gold Rhinus at the passing crowd. It’s a common figure of the good-hearted thief, but it’s a real safety hazard, you can really hurt people throwing slabs of gold at them. After some more wealth has parted from it's owner, the patronage of young and affectionable ladies the storyline can start. One piece of the loot was a box holding something precious enough to cause the whole local militia to search for it, and there goes Goemon trying to find out who picked it up when he thrown it to the crowd. After that it gets confused, what I managed to understand was this: the box holds proof of some betrayal in the last war, the traitor being of course the actual ruler, and he sends a trusted ninja to get it back and destroy it, while others factions also send their ninjas to get it to overthrow the bad guy. Goemon and his side kick a recaught in the middle. Then we are told that Goemon is also a famous ninja and was like a son to the first ruler, so he’ll try and kill the traitor.

Indeed there is plenty of ninjas. Behind every pebble on the road there is a ninja waiting to spring like a devil out of a toy box. Why? Mostly because they can. And it also simplifies the narration process to a numbing point. Each time some part of the plot needs a character; he pops out of thin air or falls out from a tree like a ripe plum. The overall storyline was already confused enough without having this added to puzzle us. Maybe it’s a weird philosophy, “confusion-ism”? Maybe I don’t get it.

The film is expressly built to grab a larger market, or to give an exotic feeling to the Japan audiences, I don’t even want to know, but the armor look more like the Bavarian renaissance or even stormtroopers than it does Japanese. The overall look is bi-folded: there’s too much of everything in the design to look anything but fake, and yet not enough to step firmly into the fantasy genre and get over the fakeness. There is a slight difference, about the size of the average elephant, between Baroque and Rococo. Sadly here the director didn’t take notice of the elephant and we have the latter. The direct consequence is a cardboard feel I haven't had the displeasure of seeing since Dungeon and Dragons the movie. Under all that grime and cardboard, the cast ends up having the screen presence of a chocolate duck. I couldn’t get interested in any of the characters they portray. Add that the whole story development is even more tedious and annoying than in Casshern and that the whole movie is clearly fit for direct to video, not a theatrical release. On the theater screen there was a huge rotoscoping clipping (without dither or feathering) getting the live footage to stick out like a sore thumb. Only in some heavily filtered/layered scenes are the actors correctly blended into the CGI. And it works so well then it’s a greater shame.

The manga-live has codes and cliché of its own, like any other genre. Take running for example; you must convey the sense of blinding speed while hinting of either ease or effort in a stylized fashion. Most of the time, whatever you try it will end in ludicrous but effective positions. Sadly, here it looks like a jerk doing the “locomotion” off-beat while the CGI scenery moves about vaguely and doesn’t convey anything but the lingering aroma of goat cheese. All is not bad, there are a few epic moments working pretty well, like the “going down the cliff at full speed on my horse”-trick. But most of them don't work at all, like the horse pursuit mixed with tree course and aerial fight, which feels like a glorified Naruto episode. Sincerely I can’t even get if the point of most of the scene is to show action, or to induce vomiting in the audience. It’s well known that a CGI camera can achieve otherwise impossible movements. This does not mean you can make it spin around, whirl and twirl as if the house cat was entering the animation keys by nibbling on the mouse. But the REAL problem is that THE TEXTURES ARE BLURRY! The whole movie get this atrocious pre-90’s videogame rendering, it’s like watching Tomb Raider one. There’s also the total lack of depth in the scenery, all the background feel flat and it is worse in the circular motion scenes. The decor is a basic NURBS surface with a poor texture lacking any good displacement mapping or poorly sprayed with strange grass. Yes strange grass indeed. It moves like there are sinusoidal waves applied randomly on it and is thick enough to feel like green grizzly fur. There are also the crowd effects. Lots and lots of people, most of them looking sliced and glued on another part of the frame, so I either hallucinated or this particular medieval world had knowledge of cloning. Worse there is absolutely no inertia in this world, even the Huge Christian Gatling Guns (Don’t ask!) feel like origami. I won’t start babbling about image credibility when dealing with CG special effects BUT damn! When buildings collapse like they would under extra virgin olive oil, it is NOT believable. It’s a common mistake with CGI beginners, they are proud of their little effects, so they give it more screen time without thinking about rhythm or pace of the action around. Everyone has done it, I’ve done it, but you should learn to avoid that before making your first movie.

How can a movie with so little characterization take so long to start? All the characters have the depth of a standard counter-ashtray. They aren’t assumed archetypes, nor brilliant creations enlightening the human psyche. They are the little needed to get the vague plot going, and with some glimpses of opposite development to feed the (far too frequent) flashbacks. The whole caste justification for motives behind the characters actions is borderline to “all peasants are power-hungry madmen that should never be allowed out of their rice paddy”. There, again, a proper use of the idea could have added depth. But instead, they make this particular character feel like an overgrown locust. A pupil killing his master is yet another common development bastardly used as a cheap twist instead of a fully fledged symbol.

Maybe I’m a little touchy when it comes to European myths and culture, but seeing a boxed covered in hieroglyph getting called “Pandora’s Box” makes me want to cry and buy the production team “Greek myths for dummies”. And there again is a waste of a perfectly good symbol. I know they come cheap today but hell. On a side note there is no explanation whatsoever on how Goemon manages to figure out the legend behind the box in 45 minutes of runtime.

Casshern relied only on visuals and had a re-viewability problem. The first screening was unbelievable, the second already boring and uninteresting: the eyes having already trained the brain with the visuals, are not able to find anything interesting so they close shop or turn to less boring tasks like thinking about cheese. GOEMON manages this effect within the first 30 minutes.

At the start I was wondering if all of this was intended, but by the end of the screening that doubt was lifted. It wasn’t. There is clearly a deliberate loss of narration either due to lack of skill or budget. So what now? Clearly we have a problem here. There is absolutely NO progress in Kazuaki Kiriya's work. He’s even less of a story teller than he was in CASSHERN. Visually, it’s the same but it looks bored and uninspired. There are a few decent moments, but not enough given the 128 minute runtime.. It looks to me Kazuaki Kiriya used all of his creativity in Casshern and is now ruminating on it, like a bloated cow with her daily quota of hay. And like everything regurgitated it now tastes sour and smells faintly of fungus. “There will be hell to pay!” is frequently howled by Goemon’s sidekick. Indeed there is. I cannot recommend seeing it in theaters. Given the ratio of rotoscoped borders I’d say don’t watch it on anything bigger than 42” (less will be better). And of course, you’ll be able to fast forward to the pseudo-bushido soap-opera about love forbidden, duty calling and the proper way to disguise yourself while still being recognized as the famous ninja from the left wind of the noodle.

I can’t find more than 4 points to give to GOEMON, most of them out of fond memories of my first Casshern screening. If you want to see action in a Medieval Fantastic Asia with incredible images, directing and some real visual achievement, go see “Kung Fu Panda” instead.

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Rayossan (12 years ago) Reply

You sound like you had a really bad day. I liked the movie. I think you had a bad day or something. Then again, I'm not a movie critic...


Jerome (12 years ago) Reply

I am sorry you didn't enjoy the movie, I am in Japan and the Japanese people loved it. This film has all the action and fantasy that expect out of this type of movie. The only characters that needed background were Goemon and Saizo. The only information I needed was how they connected to the Daimyou (they are the warlords Nobunaga, Ieyasu, Mitsuhide) who are real people that represent an important period in Japanese history. Then you have the legendary Shinobi, Hattori Hanzo ( in japan they say the last name first so he is known this way) who is the stuff legends are made of. This movie was clearly made with the Japanese people in mind, the fact that other cultures love this movie (to include myself) shows that the history behind a movie is just as important as the movie. I have done some small research into the history of Japan and that has given me this ability to understand this movie just a little more than others. I am not a paid movie critic, but I am a critic. This is a great movie and I can't wait to see it with English subtitles.

By the way Ieyasu turns out to lead Japan into an age of peace that had never been experienced. Until this point Japan was a feudal state where the Daimyou (there were a lot more than what was portrayed in this movie)were contstantly fighting to gain the most land and largest army. There endgame was to be so strong to and command so much of the land that the emperor (who was nothing but a figure head) would recognize them as a Shogun. He was the first to unite Japan as one and he was the first Shogun. His family would rule Japan for 15 generations.


umm (10 years ago) Reply

Ieyasu wasn't the first shogun. He was the first shogun of the tokugawa shogunate, which was the very last shogunate.

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